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NY Times. July 6, 2018
Claude Lanzmann, Epic Chronicler of the Holocaust, Dies at 92
By Daniel Lewis
Claude Lanzmann, the journalist and film director whose obsession with
the Nazi genocide brought forth “Shoah,” a groundbreaking film that
relived the annihilation of Jews through the memories of witnesses, died
on Thursday in Paris. He was 92.
His publisher, Gallimard, confirmed his death, at the Saint-Antoine
Mr. Lanzmann, a son of assimilated French Jews, took everything at full
tilt. At 18, he led a Communist youth Resistance group, risking his life
by smuggling small arms under the eyes of the Gestapo in
Clermont-Ferrand, in central France. He became a figure of the
intellectual Left, a protégé of Jean-Paul Sartre, the lover of Simone de
Beauvoir for nine years, and a colleague of them both at the cultural
review Les Temps Modernes, where he was editor in chief for many years.
With “Shoah” — Hebrew for catastrophe — Mr. Lanzmann upstaged everything
he had done before. From its release in 1985, the film was
internationally recognized as both an important historical record and an
original, even beautiful, work of art — a nine-and-a-half-hour movie
without a single frame of the by-then-familiar footage of the gas
chambers or the living skeletons that Allied forces discovered in the
Germans’ death camps.
Instead, Mr. Lanzmann tracked down and interviewed living witnesses:
officers and bureaucrats who had run the camps; Jewish survivors,
including veterans of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto; and Polish
townspeople in Treblinka, Chelmno and Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz camp
A relentless interviewer, he used whatever it took — filming
surreptitiously, posing as a French historian trying “to set the record
straight” — to pry astonishing stories out of his subjects.
Franz Suchomel, a former SS functionary at Treblinka who had been
convicted of war crimes and spent six years in prison, told Mr. Lanzmann
(in confidence, or so he thought) that it was not true, as some Jews
claimed, that 18,000 a day were gassed at Treblinka. It was 12,000 to
15,000, he said, and noted with some little pride that when things were
going well, the operation would take about two hours, from the arrival
of a trainload of Jews until their incineration in the ovens.
In the film’s opening segment, Simon Srebnik, who as a teenager was one
of only two or three Jews to survive the final mass execution at
Chelmno, comes back from Israel as a middle-aged man and is given a warm
homecoming by a group of Polish villagers. They are standing on the
steps of a Roman Catholic church where Jews had been held before being
“In the middle of this company of well-wishers,” Vincent Canby wrote in
his review of the film in The New York Times, “Mr. Srebnik looks like
someone who’s won a Lotto prize he doesn’t want, and doesn’t comprehend.”
“Shoah” was never intended as a straightforward documentary or oral
history, but rather what Mr. Lanzmann called “a fiction of the real.” It
was consciously artful, he said, so as to “make the unbearable bearable.”
Thus, the film sometimes retraces scenes from the past with original
participants as “actors.” It frequently breaks away from the face of a
witness to scan a peaceful Polish countryside, where the horrors being
spoken of once took place.
Much of the impact of these devices was realized in the five years Mr.
Lanzmann spent editing his footage. Before that, he had spent seven
years shooting, partly because he was four years into the project when,
on his first visit to Treblinka, he encountered things “that forced me
to start again from scratch.”
In his autobiography, “The Patagonian Hare,” made available in English
translation in 2012, Mr. Lanzmann wrote: “I had not wanted to come to
Poland, I arrived full of arrogance, and convinced I was coming only to
confirm that I had not needed to come.”
But at the Treblinka train station, “the shift from myth to reality took
place in a blinding flash, the encounter between a name and a place
wiped out everything I had learned.”
That very day he began working in a sustained fever of urgency,
questioning townspeople about their memories of the death-camp years and
gathering minute details about the arrival and unloading of boxcars
crammed with doomed souls and the ever-present stench of charred flesh
and of corpses rotting in mass graves. He realized at last that the true
subject of his film: “Death itself.”
Mr. Lanzmann was a man of strong convictions. He rejected the word
“Holocaust” — literally, “burnt offering” — as a description of the
genocide. He railed against its “commodification” in films like
“Schindler’s List.” He believed that Polish anti-Semitism was an
“essential condition” of the genocide; indeed, the lack of anything in
“Shoah” that would cast Poles in a better light led the Warsaw
government to demand that the film be banned after its premiere in Paris.
“Shoah” was Mr. Lanzmann’s second film, after “Why Israel” (1973). He
continued to make important films right up until his death, taken from
the vast trove of unused outtakes from “Shoah.” “Le Rapport Karski”
(2010) chronicled the vain efforts of the Polish Resistance hero Jan
Karski, whom Mr. Lanzmann had interviewed at length, to warn the Allies
about what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Characteristically for
Mr. Lanzmann, the film was intended as a furious response to a young
French novelist who had dared, in the filmmaker’s view, to appropriate
the heroic figure of Mr. Karski.
“Le Dernier des Injustes” (“The Last of the Unjust”) was a devastating
2013 film about betrayal, complicity and survival centered on the figure
of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, who had been on the governing body at the
Germans’ “show-camp” of Theresienstadt. This year, Mr. Lanzmann released
“Shoah: Les Quatre Sœurs” in France, the powerful testimony of four
women who survived the Holocaust.
Mr. Lanzmann was a dominating, outspoken and cantankerous figure in
French intellectual and public life. He was a leftist who counseled the
dying Socialist president François Mitterrand, and a critic of
colonialism who also defended Israel. A man of boundless, Balzac-like
appetites, he was a “filmmaker who made a novel out of his life,” as a
headline in the newspaper Le Monde put it on Thursday.
But to a rare degree for any artist, Mr. Lanzmann’s reputation and
perhaps his raison d’être rest on a singular achievement: the film that
consumed him for 12 years in his middle age. It was as if a respected
but little-known court composer had made a Beethoven symphony.
“Shoah” has been shown more or less continuously in European countries
and was broadcast in Turkey in January 2012, its first public showing in
a Muslim-majority country. Mr. Lanzmann feared that the film had
“disappeared from the American scene” after its serialization on public
television in 1987, however, and he welcomed its re-release in the
United States in 2010.
He was visiting New York at the time, 85 years old and impatient as ever
with efforts to “explain” the Holocaust or make uplifting entertainment
from it. “To ask why the Jews have been killed,” he said in an interview
with The Times, “is a question that shows immediately its own obscenity.”
Adam Nossiter and Elian Peltier contributed reporting.
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